By Nicole Francois
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nine layers in a Shanghai teacake; it takes a whole day just to make them.
Ellen Kam and Teresa Oh sit together with friends at The Lakeshore retirement community in south Seattle reveling in Lunar New Year delicacies and traditions of past and present.
Ms. Kam grew up in Shanghai, traveled the world as a flight attendant, and made Seattle home with her husband in the late 1960s.
“Chinese New Year happens everywhere,” says Kam. “In China, it feels more Buddhist; in Seattle, you see the Chinese Christian tradition.”
In her youth, Kam and her siblings participated in many traditions. Each year, they recovered chairs in the dining room with new silk covers. Kam has vivid memories of her mother’s elaborate culinary dishes that she describes as very fancy, with exotic names carrying meaning attached to her hopes for the year.
After the celebration, Kam and her sister would save their red envelopes for months, believing the longer they kept the money the luckier it would be for them. Today, she wraps packages for children and shares red envelopes with a new generation.
For Ms. Oh, who has always been politically involved, Chinese New Year meant the community would come together.
“My sister-in-law’s family used to own House of Hong,” she shares, almost as if it was a delightful family secret. “We would go with the kids to Chinatown, feast at House of Hong and watch the parade. It was so loud we had to cover our ears. This celebration has been happening for a long time.”
Ms. Oh remembers connecting with friends at the events, talking about how their children were doing in school, discussing how to change immigration policies and later university admissions regulations that were unfair to the Asian American community.
These days, Chinese New Year is more laid back for Ms. Oh and her contemporaries.
“We had a Lion Dance here, and I could see every single part of it up close,” says Hideko Tekawa with a twinkle in her eye and smile on her face. “I had seen it in the street parades before, but up close I saw the physical practice of the artists, watching them climb and move. It was just amazing how athletic and coordinated they are.”
“The new year is always a time of big family celebrations,” says resident, Ryomi Tanino. “Now that more of us are mixed race, we are seeing new traditions and I enjoy it.”
The residents at The Lakeshore retirement community are about one-third Asian American. Most have lived in south Seattle for a long time.
“My whole family is diverse, my grandchildren and great grandchildren don’t know any other way,” says resident, Betty Frodsham. “We have always enjoyed that this neighborhood is such a lovely blend of cultures; we learn from each other here.”
In 2014, the staff at The Lakeshore was working to create learning programs for residents. They sent a survey asking the residents what they most desired to learn. “Overwhelmingly, our residents told us that they are fascinated by the beauty and culture of Asian countries,” says The Lakeshore Executive Director Susanne Rossi. “We developed a four-part, year-long curriculum. First we studied China, next Japan, and then Korea. We ended the year learning about Southeast Asian cultures, histories and traditions. I think we could easily dedicate another year to learning about Asia.”
All the elders agree that a tradition for every year of life should be to stay interested in culture, and always carry a passion for learning. It will keep you young, and more importantly, they say, happy. (end)
Nicole Francois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.